The Maiden of Brooklyn
Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox
For thirty days following his wife’s death, Reb Berish abstained from trimming his fiery red beard, a personal vanity he privately indulged, but Rosalie Bavli, Tema’s mother, was, after all, his second wife; his first wife he had divorced on the day after the anniversary of their tenth year of marriage when she had still failed to produce an offspring of any flavor. The woman he took shortly afterward, the woman who became Tema’s mother, was nearly fifteen years his junior, in her early thirties at the most by his reckoning when she departed this world, they were almost of different generations not to mention different sexes.
On the shloshim after her death, following the prescribed thirty days of second-stage mourning, Reb Berish bared his throat to his trusted barber for a nice beard trim, commissioned a local synagogue hanger-on to say Kaddish during prayers three times a day over the duration of the eleven months’ mourning period for his late wife, Rosalie—Rachel-Leah Bavli—who had failed to plan ahead and leave a son qualified to perform this service in her behalf, and he let it be known to everyone in his circle as well as to professional matchmakers that he was now in the market for remarriage. He also threw himself even more intensely than ever into his business, which was prospering beyond his wildest dreams, providing the most highly regarded, strictest kosher certification to meats of all kinds based on his years of experience as a shokhet, a ritual slaughterer, now employing a sizable staff of authorized personnel, butchers and overseers, and branching out to a whole range of other food products in addition to meats. The Berel Bavli logo—the double-B seal of approval, evoking the two tablets of the Ten Commandments—was worth its weight in gold, a guarantee of the highest, most trustworthy level of supervision. Of course, by the time his second wife Rosalie passed away he no longer worked hands-on, so to speak, as a shokhet, but there is no doubt that the accumulation of years he had spent standing in pools of blood cutting the throats of cattle and sheep and fowl and inspecting their entrails gave him a realistic perspective on physical mortality that extended to humans in the image of God as well not excluding women—a perspective that could not be expected of a sheltered child such as Tema assigned to sit watch beside her freshly dead mother whose mouth hung open like a dog’s.
Even so, during that first year following the death, Reb Berish took sufficient heed of the trouble signs in his daughter that were being brought to his attention with increasing frequency, and based on the advice of his rabbi, the Oscwiecim Rebbe, he took Tema out of the neighborhood girls’ school, Beis Beinonis, which was considered slightly more to the permissive side, and transferred her to Beis Ziburis off Bedford Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was reputed to be a stricter institution that kept the girls rigorously focused on what was expected of them regardless of personal problems or life situations. Reb Berish banged on the door of Tema’s bedroom one morning after he had tried to open it by turning the knob, which was how he discovered that she had installed a lock to carry out her mortifications in private, and informed her that he would be driving her to her new school in half an hour, after which she would be going there and back on her own on the subway—which was how Tema discovered that she would be switching schools.
It was also during that year before the stone was unveiled over the grave plot that Reb Berish married again without informing Tema of his intentions or even that he had been looking much less found a bride. A small, private ceremony, without music of course out of respect for the recently deceased, was held in the living room of the Oswiecim Rebbe, who officiated under a tablecloth held overhead as a huppa canopy by four old Jews dragged in from the street along with their folding shopping carts. Afterward, the rebbe’s wife pushed aside the great maroon volumes of Talmud and other books of law on the long dining room table where her husband usually presided and served some schnapps in little fluted paper cups and slices of sponge cake on napkins, and, as a special treat, because it was she who had been the successful arranger of this match, a plate of herring, each piece skewered with a toothpick topped with a brightly colored decorative cellophane frill.
Naturally, Tema was not present on that occasion. She met the new wife the next morning after her father had already gone off to shul for prayers and then onward to his business when there was a knock on her door in the wake of a tread that she could tell was not his. Tema opened the door to a woman in a pink chenille bathrobe who inquired with a heavy Eastern European accent where the linen closet was located. She needed to change the bedsheets.
Her name was Frumie Klein, she was seventeen years old, and Tema recognized her instantly as one of the older girls from Beis Beinonis known collectively as the “refugees” who were coming into the high school during that period from a black hole referred to as “over there,” where terrible but not surprising things were happening to the Jewish people too shameful to talk about but which everyone accepted in the cosmic scheme as predictable and no doubt deserved punishment for our sins against the Master of the Universe acting through his evil agent, Adolf Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out. Frumie, originally from a cosmopolitan, secular Budapest family where she had been known as Felicia, was a silent, gaunt girl of fifteen when she arrived from a displaced persons camp aboard an American troopship setting sail from Bremerhaven and was collected at the dock in New York City by distant ultra-Orthodox Boro Park relatives who regarded it as a great mitzvah that could only redound to their credit in the divine ledger to take in such an orphan, may such misfortunes as befell this poor girl never befall any of us.
Over the ensuing two years Frumie occupied herself with eating steadily mostly in secret and with stealing small change from her host family in order to buy facial creams and lotions from the drugstore to cope with a devastating case of acne, a mask of pus pimples and inflamed sores that all the ladies sitting in the balcony of the synagogue remarked was so unusual in Hungarian women, universally acclaimed for their flawless complexions and for the skincare secrets they possessed, which produced legendary cosmetics magnates female by sex and Jewish by race.
An exhilarating new intellectual history argues that anti-Judaism is at the heart of Western culture